Saturday, August 1, 2015

Saturday Waffling (August 1st, 2015)

So, you may recall a month or two ago when I ran a big, juicy story on how the website Doctor Who Online was ripping off advertisers. And that got me thinking about my own advertising, and about how I'd much rather be offering advertising to other small businesses within the fan/geek community than selling them via Google and hosting loads of crap ads using phrases like "one weird trick" and "professors hate him" unironically.

So I'm pleased to announce that I've switched advertising over to Project Wonderful, an advertising network created by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics/Squirrel Girl fame, and working mostly among webcomics and other independent websites. Which means that you, yes you, can now easily advertise on my site.

Ads are bid-based, so they cost, basically, as much as people are willing to pay for it. The ads helpfully self-advertise how much outbidding the current ad would cost you, and if you click on the text beneath the ads they'll give you nice and easy directions on how to advertise. I get more page views per day than Doctor Who Online, and charge a fraction of the price for ads. So please, if you've got something you want to advertise, go ahead and do it. My guess is it'll only cost you a couple bucks a day.

As for things to discuss, I admit that I'm more than slightly bemused and intrigued by Colin Baker's somewhat indecorous feud with Doctor Who Magazine over the practice of publishing ranked lists of things (his feelings are described in detail towards the top of his site), not least because I've settled on the ranked list as the house style for reviews here. And while I admit my view is roughly "I feel like Colin Baker should be more concerned about the fact that his tenure in Doctor Who asked the audience to accept a domestic abuser as a sympathetic protagonist than about the hurt feelings of whoever comes in last in a fan survey," it seems an interesting enough thing to discuss. So, anyone feel like stepping up and defending Baker's position that the least popular members of a set should be spared the indignity of coming in last in fan polls? Or, if you want the broader philosophical topic, bad reviews: what's the point of them?

We're back on Monday with the start of the next round of The Super Nintendo Project. See you the.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Your purity only hurts the reason you’re doing it. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Three: Corporate Comics)

Previously in The Last War in Albion: The intricate fictional history of Watchmen is based closely on the history of DC Comics, and the characters served as analogues (albeit imprecise ones) for the archetypal heroes of DC.

For all that Moore and Gibbons created an elaborate superhero universe based on the principle of taking a more materially realistic view of the impact superheroes would have on the world, going so far as to think through the comics industry of his fictional world, there is a crucial tangible oversight within Watchmen: it almost completely ignores the way in which superheroes are, historically, generally corporate owned franchises. There are occasional nods towards it - the tragicomic fate of Dollar Bill, Ozymandias’s business empire, and the relationship between the first Silk Spectre and her agent all gesture at the commercial dimensions of costumed heroes. But it is a minor theme within the book, despite ultimately serving as a major one outside of it. Moore might fairly have asked himself, after all, how it was that the Charlton characters, created by Steve Ditko, Joe Gill, Pete Morisi, Charles Nicholas, and Pat Boyette, were initially available for his use at a completely different company from either of the two they had originated at, with none of their creators even remotely involved. Had he done so, the ways in which writing Watchmen would eventually turn sour for him might have come as somewhat less of a surprise than they in practice did. 

The truth, however, is that Moore’s alienation from this aspect of superheroes was always fairly fundamental. For all the money that Watchmen made him (and it was considerable), there were always numerous ways in which Moore left money on the table, and not just from himself. He adamantly refused to write a sequel to the book, and the only prequel he ever seriously considered was a series focusing on the Minutemen which, in any event, he never wrote. And when Barbara Randall (now Kesel), his editor on the series, leaked to him plans that had been cooked up at a DC editorial retreat shortly after the book’s completion for a trio of prequel series (one focusing on the Minutemen, one on the Comedian, and one on Rorschach), he acted swiftly to derail the plans. Indeed, this is a position he has never wavered on in the thirty years since the book’s release, declaring, upon the announcement of the Before Watchmen project in 2012, that “if people do want to go out and buy these Watchmen prequels, they would be doing me an enormous favor if they would just stop buying my other books,” and declaring that he had “complete contempt” for anyone who did buy them. Moore was, simply put, not terribly interested in serving as a productive member of the DC Comics stable of creative personnel.

Figure 842: Even when Moore took jobs on
high-profile titles like Batman, he was more inclined
to write stories focusing on semi-obscure villains
like Clayface than to focus on the iconic characters.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by George Freeman,
from "Mortal Clay" in Batman Annual #11, 1987)
This had, in some ways, always been the case. A perusal of his work for DC Comics quickly reveals that Moore was on the whole more interested in playing with the margins of the DC Universe than in working with the iconic characters. Although he wrote a pair of stories each featuring Superman and Batman, the stories were one-offs that seem in many ways to be more about checking the characters off of Moore’s bucket list than in substantial exploration of the characters. Indeed, one of his Batman stories is focused more on Clayface, a c-list member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, than on Batman himself. The majority of Moore’s DC Universe work instead features more marginal characters such as Green Arrow, the Green Lantern Corps, the Omega Men, Vigilante, the Phantom Stranger, and, of course, Swamp Thing. And a perusal of the things Moore considered writing for DC but never got beyond writing a pitch for is similarly obscure, including the Challengers of the Unknown, Martian Manhunter, Tommy Tomorrow, the Demon, the Metal Men, a Bizarro series, and Lois Lane. This is all the more telling given the period during which Moore was working for DC, which included the immediate aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a period where DC was eager to engage in high profile relaunches of major titles such as the John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, and the George PĂ©rez revamp of Wonder Woman. Had their much acclaimed British wunderkind been interested in any sort of extended work on a high profile character, or even in another extended run on a second tier character in the vein of his Swamp Thing work, it is almost unthinkable that he would not have done so.

It is also this fact, in the end, that led to Moore’s falling out with DC. In the end, Moore and DC viewed the success of Watchmen as being their doing, and viewed the other as being eminently replaceable. To Moore, the book succeeded because it was a particularly well-made comic. To DC, it succeeded because it was a major prestige project from DC. Moore firmly believed that he could find similar success at other publishers on the basis of his talent, and DC firmly believed that they could produce similarly successful comics from other creative teams. And while neither, in the ensuing three decades, has managed anything quite like Watchmen, there was always only ever going to be one Watchmen. The reality is that, for the most part, both Moore and DC were right. Moore was more than capable of maintaining a critically acclaimed, creatively satisfying, and financially lucrative career separate from DC, and DC was more than capable of using Watchmen as a template to be followed.

Doing so, it should be stressed, was largely second nature to DC. Indeed, it’s largely what the company, and more broadly the American comics industry (and for that matter the British comics industry) were based on. The entire superhero genre, after all, owes its existence to a rush of attempts to duplicate the success DC had with Superman following Action Comics #1. The emergence of Marvel Comics in the 1960s owes its existence to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby turning Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky’s work creating the Justice League of America into a template, and subsequently to both Marvel and DC imitating the Lee/Kirby formula. And the same pattern continues throughout the history of the industry, including the 1970s surge of horror books that led to things like Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night at Marvel and to House of Secrets and House of Mystery being revamped by Joe Orlando at DC, leading in turn to the creation of Swamp Thing. In American comics, success exists to be imitated. 

Figure 843: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight
Returns
 was DC's other main prestige book of
the period.
In this regard, Watchmen cannot be taken as an entirely discrete object, given that DC was having massive success with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns at virtually the same time. Certainly one conclusion an imitation-minded comics company could draw from this is that there was demand for darker, more violent superhero comics, and to be sure, plenty of those were produced. But a second, equally valid conclusion, and one that DC also reached, was that comics readers of the 1980s, in the wake of the industry’s reconfiguration around the direct market, were hungry for prestige projects featuring high-profile and acclaimed creators. There is an obvious dissonance between treating this as a formula to imitate and DC’s unwillingness to accommodate Moore. But what DC needed to imitate this aspect of Watchmen’s success wasn’t Alan Moore, a creator with increasingly grandiose literary ambitions; it was creators who were interested in being big fish in a specific small pond, namely the American direct market comics industry. And so DC set about looking for one, approaching the task of finding potential Alan Moore replacements with blunt literalness by flying Karen Berger to the UK in early 1988 to conduct a talent search.

Grant Morrison was not the first British writer brought to DC in order to replicate Alan Moore’s success; that was Jamie Delano, who Moore personally recommended as the writer of the John Constantine solo series DC launched alongside the start of Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing run. Nor is it fair to call him the most successful of DC’s prospective Moore imitators; that is, by any reasonable measure, Neil Gaiman, whose success with The Sandman is the only one of DC’s attempts to use Moore as a template to have come close to matching the success of the original, and whose subsequent career beyond comics brought him the most commercial success of any of the War’s major combatants. And yet for all of this, he is perhaps the most important. 

Certainly he is the writer who most fully embodied DC’s goals. Morrison has always been open about the specific influence of Moore on his decision to return to comics in 1985, following several years spent failing to be a rock star, citing Moore’s work on Marvelman in Warrior as the only comic he really read during the years he was absent from the industry, and as the thing that brought him back, saying that “for me, Marvelman was the next stage beyond the kitchen sink naturalism of Captain Clyde, and I couldn’t wait to explore the new frontiers that were opening ahead.” And upon returning, he followed closely in Moore’s footsteps. Where Moore wrote Marvelman and V for Vendetta at Warrior, Morrison wrote The Liberators. Where Moore wrote Captain Britain at Marvel UK, Morrison wrote Zoids. And where Moore wrote a series of forty-three twist-ending shorts for IPC’s 2000 AD, Morrison wrote a series of fifteen twist-ending shorts for IPC’s 2000 AD

Figure 844: One of Morrison's earliest jobs in comics
was the robot-fighting series Zoids for Marvel UK.
(Written by Grant Morrison, art by Kev Hopgood,
from Spider-Man and Zoids #40, 1987)
Some of this, certainly, was an inevitable reaction to the realities of the British comics industry in which both men got their starts. There were only so many publishers and titles one could work on. But Morrison’s imitation of Moore went beyond mere job selection. This is not so much a matter of raw textual similarities; these exist, but ultimately no more than one would expect given the number of shared influences they have. Rather, it is that Morrison understood the method by which Moore had achieved critical and commercial success. He grasped the way in which Moore would pick apart a premise, exploring the creative possibilities of its unexamined assumptions, and the way in which Moore was unafraid of broad ambition. With Zoids, for instance, as Morrison tells it, “I took the job seriously and set about transforming the undemanding source material - a group of astronauts stranded on a planet of warring alien robots - into a showcase for my peculiar talents in an action-and-angst-fueled take on East-West politics and how it felt to be part of a group of ordinary people trapped between the titanic struggles of very large opponents who couldn’t care less about your hobbies or your favorite books.” And this, it must be said, is distinct from anything Moore would actually do, even as it shares the broad strokes of his approach. From the start, Morrison was very much his own man. Indeed, even the sense of wily ambition that he displayed has its roots as much in his early professional work in Near Myths and on Captain Clyde. But all the same, it’s clear that Morrison, having failed at being a rock star, tried his hand instead at being a comics star, using Alan Moore as his model. Which was, of course, exactly what DC wanted.


It is this that forms the cruel tension that would go on to define Grant Morrison’s career. His ambition was, in the end, the same as it had been in his rock star days. This was not mere fame, nor commercial success, although both would necessarily occur in the course of realizing his will. What Morrison sought was instead the root from which these things sprung: Greatness. And yet within his chosen field he was cursed to the role of eternal successor. No matter what he did, however sweeping his vision and towering his genius, the crown he wished to wear would always be defined by the fact that it had been abdicated by another man. He would be denied even the opportunity to play the upstart devil seeking to overthrow the tyrant father, no matter how hard, at various points in his career, he tried to do just that. And for a man who wants to conquer the world, there is nothing quite so cruel as inheriting the throne. [continued]

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Comics Reviews (July 29th, 2015)

From worst to best of what I bought.

Sandman Overture: Special Edition #5

The quality of the bonus material in this is really, amazingly, egregiously shit. I think my favorite this time is once again the Neil Gaiman interview, which is five questions long and consists of questions like "What's on The Sandman's iPod," a question that manages to find an impressive variety of ways to be stupid, including "why is the editor of this book referring to the main character as The Sandman," "why are we still using 'iPod' as a cultural signifier in 2015," and my personal favorite, "why did anyone think this was a good question to ask Neil Gaiman?" The only decent bit is the short Dave McKean essay about his process creating the covers. All in all, especially given the considerable number of months they have to pull these special editions together, this is one of the biggest rip-offs in comics at $4.99.

Daredevil #17

Surprised that this one ranks so low for me, but it completely left me cold. Can't even particularly articulate a reason, although it doesn't help that I have no real sense of who half the characters are. The Shroud has been appearing for a while, and I get the broad strokes but... nothing sparks for me about him and his plot. Ikari, I vaguely remember, but he seems to just be Daredevil who can see, which, OK, that's kinda flat. This storyline was working as a operatic and inevitable Daredevil/Kingpin finale, but this puts the emphasis on the wrong parts of the story.

1602: Witch Hunter Angela #2

I found myself a bit lost in this one. Part of it is marketing; I'd expected something a bit more Neil Gaiman pastiche, and instead it's very much the Gillen/Bennett Angela book filtered through the 1602 aesthetic, with very little of the underlying Gaiman remaining. Was less amused by the 1602 Guardians than I'd hoped from the cover. All in all, this was a bit of a misfire, though the five-page story-within-a-story was cute.

Fables #150

Actually out last week, but I missed it then and grabbed it this week instead. Turns out releasing your final issue as a trade paperback goes poorly for your regular readers. And is, all in all, a more than slightly ludicrous idea. It's not fair to call it overdone or undeserved; much as it lost gradual steam over its run, Fables was a landmark series, and earned an unapologetically maximalist conclusion. But equally, after an extended final installment and (not kidding) fifteen epilogues, culminating in a gatefold spread to match the gatefold cover, not a single panel of which was even half as good as Legends in Exile, it's tough to actually praise either. Like a double album a decade after a musician's best work: you're glad it exists, but you wish you hadn't spent money on it.

Sex Criminals #11

Another solid installment long on hilarity and character bits, although a bit ruthless in terms of picking up after a six month absence; this does not feel like the first issue of a new story arc in the least. But that's neither here nor there; it's a new issue of Sex Criminals, and as wonderful as you'd expect given that.

Lazarus #18

There's definitely parts of the plot here I'm having trouble keeping track of - in particular, I'm at a complete loss for anything that's happening in the combat scenes besides the character moments. Though I suspect some fog of war is the point. In any case, that only sort of matters - it's only the mid-size plot I'm losing. The broad strokes are pleasantly clear, and the issue introduces its POV characters well enough to flow on its own merits. Good stuff, in other words, and an effective demonstration of how to do a big, plot-heavy political epic as a serialized comic. I should sit down with the run so far and marathon it sometime soon, as I suspect I'll really love it.

Thors #2

Man, I'd forgotten what Jason Aaron is like when he's actually writing good stuff. Police procedural multi-Thor book is just a golden premise that's almost impossible not to like. Unlike a lot of the Secret Wars books, this one keeps its central premise in tight focus, so it's easy to keep up with the plot (a particularly big issue as Secret Wars gets stretched out - this is off until September now), using a neatly high concept murder mystery as a hook to keep things running. Effective and fun. Why can't they all be this good?

Batgirl #42

Love the Batgirl/Gordon!Batman relationship, with Barbara cheekily giving her father advice and instructions and calling him a rookie. Love Tarr's willingness to work with high panel count pages, which I really think give comics a lovely rhythm. All in all, really just love this book - good superhero fun with a strong aesthetic. Mildly astonished to find it my favorite book of the week, but I think that's just an idiosyncratic week and my brain being particularly bad at remembering month-old plot threads this week such that this was about my speed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Time Can Be Rewritten: Night of the Doctor

"Man, this is the second-worst episode of Doctor Who I've been in."
Because my Patrons are just so gosh-darned nice.

It was, of course, one of the highlights of the Fiftieth Anniversary. A tremendously sentimental and cool moment for fans, a fantastic way of officially revealing what the Hurt Doctor was, and a lovely gift to Paul McGann, who will pretty much never have the TV Movie be someone’s introduction to his Doctor again. And we have a full set of regenerations now, if you care about that sort of thing. Just about the only thing it isn’t, really, is a satisfying ending to the Eighth Doctor Era.

It tries, and that is a real part of its charm. I mean, one is pretty much sure Moffat included the litany of Big Finish companions as an acknowledgment of the Eighth Doctor Era - you know, that messy, historical thing that actually happened. The one with a giant bone thing in the sky, and he’s traveling with a fish, and there’s that girl from Jonathan Creek. Lego. They’re all made out of fucking Lego. Moffat probably even knew what would actually happen, which was that Big Finish fans immediately declared victory over the EDA fans, while the EDA fans sulkily pointed out that technically all this really disproved was the Vampire Science gap theory if those were the companions that first came to mind. 

But the fact that this even happened; that there were still, in 2013, people whose first reaction to this was to make a new move in a fifteen-year-old fandom spat or to somehow make it about Lawrence Miles, speaks volumes. And not even bad volumes. Honestly, the greatest tragedy for anyone who lived through the Eighth Doctor Era would have been if all the blood and pixels spilt had been in the name of a faith so fragile that it could be broke upon a seven minute YouTube video. We listened to Zagreus. We pretended to take Scream of the Shalka seriously. We even read Mad Dogs and Englishmen in public. Heal that, Sisterhood.

Actually, I think my favorite part was when anti-Moffat fans seized on the retcons this made to the Eighth Doctor era as evidence of Moffat’s malfeasance while openly admitting that they hadn’t read the books or listened to the audios. Not out of any sort of “fake geek” sentiment, but simply because I find the idea of blindly entering the Eighth Doctor era factionalizations just to find another front in the Moffat wars to be the most sublimely perfect execution of the Eighth Doctor Era ever. 

All of which is to say that the symbolic fate EIghth Doctor Era is a sublimely ridiculous thing to hang on an eight minute YouTube video. Even one that is, as this one is, intelligently and slyly constructed. The first half works by taking what is by this point a staple scene of the new series - the seduction of the new companion (and both Davies and Moffat always write it as a seduction) - and then twisting it into something altogether different as the usual “bigger on the inside” line becomes a source of utter horror and revulsion for Cass.

This solves two problems. First, it offers a sufficiently large reason for the Doctor to die in only three minutes, avoiding the problem McCoy had in McGann’s other story. Companion seduction gone wrong has the exact heft needed to justify killing the Doctor. Relatedly, it gives McGann something to do that doesn’t actually require any characterization.

It’s not, of course, that McGann’s Doctor hasn’t been characterized. Indeed, the problem is in most regards the opposite - he’s been characterized far too many times, and the setup of “Night of the Doctor” requires an entire new setting: his Doctor is not quite the last of his kind, but he’s seemingly the last one outside the War. Necessarily, much has happened since the endpoint of any of the Eighth Doctor lines, though one assumes, as Big Finish increasingly deploys their new series licensing, they’ll claim the prize and tediously collapse possibility into something altogether more drab.

Which almost sounds like a criticism of Big Finish, and it is, I suppose, but it’s a carefully chosen one. I’m sure Big Finish will do a basically competent job when they inevitably get around to the “outbreak of the Time War/McGann’s last days” box set. I’m also pretty sure I won’t find it satisfying; ultimately, I rather like the Eighth Doctor the rest of the world got. You know; the sane people for whom this was the first bit of McGann they’d ever actually seen save maybe for the clips in The Doctors Revisited. Or who hadn’t seen any McGann except for the TV Movie, and that more than fifteen years ago. Big Finish is and always will be a Wilderness Years company. I’m a child of the Wilderness Years and have my preferences and views within it, but the truth is, I suspect the people for who Doctor Who was actually cancelled and gone have more fun. Certainly I think my own personal Doctor Who fandom benefitted from what was basically a nine-year break over the McGann era.

So Moffat wisely contrives to give McGann, in effect, an entirely new status quo so that he can just do whatever he wants with the role. And let’s be honest, it’s not like McGann is putting in an extensively developed performance here. This was banged together with relative haste, even if it is the crown jewel of the minisode-heavy Smith era. McGann is not quite doing first-impression readings here, but this isn’t an extensively worked through and developed performance either. He’s drawing on Big Finish experience, and he’s a damn good actor, but he’s being boosted massively by the fact that Moffat had the sense to give him dialogue that makes a lot of the decisions for him. 

This is especially evident in the second half, on Karn. This section is, in effect, a three minute crescendo - a straight ramp up to McGann’s regeneration and, in turn, to Day of the Doctor. (And consider how precise a bit of PR this is - the first official acknowledgment of the nature of the Hurt Doctor and exactly how he fits into continuity, but also essentially a redo of the ending of Name of the Doctor to refresh everyone’s memory.) Again, it largely carries itself - the dilemma the Doctor is facing is more a philosophical one than one of character. All “make me a warrior now” has to mean is “make me something other than what I am.”

Here things start to fray a bit; a companion narrative gone wrong is sufficient to justify a regeneration; justifying the abandonment of the title “Doctor” is a taller ask, and one that leans almost entirely on the mythic heft of the Time War to get the job done. Which is to say that the Eighth Doctor ends by just sort of getting caught in a jumble of someone else’s continuity. It’s tempting to call it the perfect ending for him.

And perhaps that’s the thing. More than anything, the Eighth Doctor Era needed to end unsatisfyingly, with all the arguments still in place and allowed to blabber on into eternity. Because there is no Eighth Doctor Era. It never happened. There was just an absence - a character whose only defining trait is that he was played by Paul McGann, who spent virtually the entirety of the era not playing him. 

Because in a real and, I would argue, profound sense the Eighth Doctor is notable for consisting of a pair of regeneration scenes and very little else that is particularly recognizable as Doctor Who in the sense of being the television show periodically produced by the BBC, i.e. what we overwhelmingly mean as talking about Doctor Who. The TV Movie and “Night of the Doctor” are both, in many senses simply not episodes of Doctor Who in the way that Warrior’s Gate or The Vampires of Venice are. And indeed, inasmuch as one of those senses is typographically, not even in the way that Scherzo or Vampire Science are.


Paul McGann clearly counts, and yet literally no part of his tenure does. Indeed, he’s so defined by absence that in the end, we discover he was secretly John Hurt the whole time. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.10: Valar Morghulis

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
The Direwolf, Caetlynn Stark 
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Bears of Qarth: Jorah Mormont
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
The Burning Heart, Stannis Baratheon
The Burning Heart, Mellisandre
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae

The episode is in parts. The first runs ten minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the opening image is of Tyrion’s eye. The second section is six minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Tywin Lannister. The third section is two minutes long; the transition is by employment, from Littlefinger to Roslyn. 

The second part is five minutes long, and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Roslyn to Jaime and Brienne getting out of a boat. It features the death of three unnamed Stark men, two quick, one not. 

The third is two minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by dialogue, from Brienne saying she serves Lady Catelyn to Lady Catelyn. 

The fourth is four minutes long and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, from Robb storming out to the fires in the map room. 

The fifth is seven minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by image, from the fire that Stannis looks into to Theon’s fire. 

The sixth is four minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from the courtyard of Winterfell to Tyrion. 

The seventh is one minute long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by theme, from Shae’s vow to Tyrion to Robb and Talisa’s vows. 

The eighth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by hard cut, from Robb and Talisa to Daenerys, Jorah, and The Dothraki Who Isn’t Dead walking towards the House of the Undying.

The ninth is three minutes long and is set in the Riverlands outside Harrenhal. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys within the House of the Undying to an establishing shot of rocks and cliffs. 

The tenth is four minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Arya to Bran and Rickon Stark. It features the death of Maester Luwin, euthanized by Osha. 

The eleventh is one minute long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by image, from Winterfell burning to Daenerys’s torch. 

The twelfth is two minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking through a door to Daenerys walking through a door. 

The thirteenth is seconds long and is set at the Wall. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking towards the camera to Daenerys walking away from the camera and towards the gate at the Wall. 

The fourteenth is three minutes long and is set in the Night Lands. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking into the snow to Daenerys stumbling towards Khal Drogo’s tent.

The fifteenth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking out of Drogo’s tent to Daenerys returning to the House of the Undying. It features the death of Pyat Phree, incinerated by dragons. 

The sixteenth is four minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys to Jon Snow. It features the death of Qhorin Halfhand, impaled by Jon Snow.

The seventeenth is four minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys. 

The eighteenth is two minutes long and is set at the Fist of the First Men, north of the Wall. The transition is from monsters of fire to monsters of ice. The final image is of a massive army of the dead, marching towards a riddle whose answer is chess. 

Analysis

Structurally, it spirals outwards, beginning in King’s Landing, ending at the extremes of the world. With the exception of Daenerys’s disappearance, shoved somewhat ignobly between some Stark scenes, the end simply alternates between Qarth and the Wall, although it scores somewhat differently. The Westerosi politics unfold early on, meanwhile, with King’s Landing effectively squared away in the first scene. In this regard, it is the logical consequence of the season, just as much as “Blackwater” was. Play opened with a political world that magic was scraping at the edges of; it closes with a political world subsumed by magic.

Daenerys’s vision in the House of the Undying serves as the biggest single part of this, a sequence that has her symbolically traverse the world. The image of a snow-covered Iron Throne, and of Daenerys emerging from the Wall, seen, in truth, for the first time this season are both breathtakingly well-done. It is a major departure from the books; one that is cited by book purists of the way in which the show is a lesser thing. It’s true, the book version of this sequence is a dizzying mess of images that allude to large swaths of Westerosi history, support the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage, prefigure the Red Wedding, and, in many cases, don’t even make sense as of yet in the context of the books, and may well never, so dense and allusive is the web of subjective history that Martin has woven. 

In Game of Thrones, meanwhile, it is merely very pretty. But, of course, the connection between Daenerys and the Wall is also considerably weaker in the show. The sort of hyper-detailed historical background that animates the book version of the scene is precisely what television can’t do as well as a medium. In many ways what is more significant is what is added; the farewell between Daenerys and Drogo, a character beat given to two skilled actors who acquit themselves well.

The real problem is that it highlights the most unfortunate thing about the end of the second season, which is that for all the grandeur of the images, all the House of the Undying vision now contains is a restatement of the ice/fire dualism from the first season, as is the structural ending of alternating between Qarth and the land beyond the Wall, and that monster-to-monster final transition. Which in turn casts light on an uncomfortable truth: this basically just ended the same way as the first round of play.

For an awful lot of characters, nothing has changed. Arya is on the loose again; Sansa is a prisoner in King’s Landing; Tyrion is back to being powerless; Daenerys has dragons and is vaguely pointed at Westeros; Robb is doing well but taking risks; Stannis is on Dragonstone without much power. The last particularly grates; for all that “Blackwater” was spectacular, its result turns out to be that nothing of note has changed in King’s Landing all season. Where there are major changes, they are oddly swallowed by the narrative. Jon Snow’s situation has massive implications, and four minutes of screentime. Jaime and Brienne are a delightful double act with great potential for the next season, but they’re placed early in the episode. Arya has a profound change in her trajectory, even as her overall circumstance is essentially the same, but this is necessarily subtle. The sacking of Winterfell is played so heavily for tragedy that the strangeness of it - which is a major mystery with massive implications for the plot - is swallowed. Theon’s gone through a lot, but the fact that his fate is unknown means that, perversely, it’s exactly where it was before he was a major character. A lot has happened; not much has changed. It’s been a high-scoring draw: thrilling, yet slightly unsatisfying. There is overall motion; it’s just, in most regards, unsatisfyingly slow. 

There are many aspects of play that have been refined since 2012. For instance, the choppy and fragmented style of the middle of Season Two is almost entirely abandoned at this point. And indeed, the problem of glacial pacing will get better, at least in comparison with the books, from which the problem is inherited. (Martin’s pathological worldbuilding contributes massively to this; whereas the show, by compositing and eliminating minor characters, keeps its new character to death ratio much closer to even, the books spiral out more and more diffusely.) But unfortunately, it is a problem that is first going to get a good deal worse. 


A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones will be going on indefinite hiatus. I imagine some sort of Game of Thrones coverage will go on for Season Six, but I wouldn’t expect anything before that. The Super Nintendo Project is back on August 3rd with Lemmings.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 7: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

A satisfying and well-constructed end, although as predicted not my favorite of the series. In terms of what the episode does, it is largely in keeping with what has gone before; its only significant thematic addition is the actual Raven King, who, continuing in the weird fiction theme introduced last episode, is a non-speaking character who simply strolls across the landscape of the story, makes a few alterations for reasons that are entirely his own, and exits. It’s striking and bold, a jarringly small and uncanny role for something that’s been built since the series’s start, but in a way that feels deliberate and earned.

Similarly bracing in scope is the opening scene, in which, in a very real sense, England falls to the magicians. The Parliamentary proceedings do a good job of expressing the scale of transformation sweeping across England in the wake of Strange’s unleashing of English magic, although I wonder if the series as a whole wouldn’t have been improved by finding time (and more importantly money) to show some of the Northern uprisings directly instead of reading about them off of telegrams, just to give the story a sense of scale. There’s something odd about seeing the Battle of Waterloo but not the uprisings that destabilize the entire socio-political structure of England.

There’s also some decisions I quibble about in terms of pacing and structuring the ending, most obviously the sudden reappearance of Lascelles during the denouement proper, which feels like a somewhat awkward solution to the problem of figuring out how to give the character a climactic comeuppance whereby he appears much later in the climax than is actually warranted. As loathsome a toad as Lascelles is - and his murder of Drawlight and confrontation with Childermass are both wonderful scenes - having him drop back into the plot at the moment the attempt to summon the Raven King under the name “nameless slave” goes awry and summons Stephen Black instead feels clumsy. (Harness tries to lampshade this by having him then be casually and cruelly dispatched by the Gentleman, and it helps by making the story at least mindful of Lascelle’s profound irrelevance at this point, but it doesn’t solve the problem.)

But despite occasional missteps, there’s a wealth of masterpiece sequences here. The Strange/Norrell confrontation, with Norrell finally, pathetically begging Strange not to laugh at him is a particular highlight, at once surprising and firmly rooted in the characters. Similarly adept is the final scene, with Childermass delivering a near direct address to camera as he explains that Strange and Norrell have ascended to a mythic status within the material landscape of England, having already been revealed not as magicians but as a spell woven by the Raven King.

It’s worth noting that much of this ending is original to Harness; the broad strokes of Norrell and Strange rescuing Arabella but remaining trapped in the Black Tower are all from the book, but there are major changes. Perhaps the biggest change is the destruction of all magical books in England, including the last remaining copy of Strange’s, so that the rewritten (and unreadable) Vinculus is the only book of magic left. This is a massive contrast to the book, where the entire footnote-heavy format is based on the existence of a number of magical works that can be cited and quoted to accomplish worldbuilding. Instead Harness engineers a situation of individual freedom - everybody who wants to be is now a magician, and there’s no rulebook beyond a cryptic and unknowable book that is itself a human actor.

There’s a nice stylistic similarity to Kill the Moon - the use of television and narrative to explore and shift around some vast thematic terrain in a way that, at a crucial moment, implicates the viewer in the thematic landscape. Here the rhetoric of magic that I used in discussing Kill the Moon is explicit, but it’s the same underlying trick and structure, only here the history is vast and sprawling, given room to build up and implicate a huge portion of English history. The size of the thematic edifice is impressive, as is its coherence. (All of which said, I really do adore the explicitness of the main characters being described as “the spell,” which, of course, they in practice are, especially when the overall show is considered as an act of magic to bring about a new era of English magic by aggressively reconceptualizing its history in terms of the subaltern.)


All told, then, a stone cold classic of British fantasy and British television. If this isn’t up for a Hugo (I’ll be nominating it in its entirety in Long Form, personally), it’ll be an absolute crime. 

Ranking
  1. The Black Tower
  2. All the Mirrors of the World
  3. The Education of a Magician
  4. Arabella
  5. Jonathan Strage & Mr. Norrell
  6. How is Lady Pole?
  7. The Friends of English Magic
Also, if you want more top quality Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell analysis, I highly recommend John Reppion (aka Alan Moore's son-in-law) five-part overview of the historical antecedents to the magic within the series. The fifth part, with links to parts 1-4, is here.

Saturday Waffling (July 25, 2015)

The Davison/Baker edits are continuing to come along nicely; I'm firmly in the midst of the extra essays, which are mostly going to end up being Colin Baker extra essays, just because I think that makes for a better book really.

The last Brief Treatise for the foreseeable will go up on Monday, and then "Name of the Doctor" on Tuesday. I've got the first sentence of my Hannibal/True Detective piece, but it's not quite cohering yet. I know the broad strokes of what I want to say, but the shape is still proving elusive.

So, Super Nintendo Project for a bit after that. The next stretch of games, namely "those that came out in 1993," will take us pretty much right up to Doctor Who Season Nine, at which point I'll switch to that.

Unless the Patreon hits $325 by then. If it does, I'll run something alongside S9 reviews. Maybe another stretch of Super Nintendo Project. Maybe something else.

Speaking of which, are there any topics that would get you to back the Patreon if you're not already a backer? With Brief Treatise off the table for a bit, I've very much got a slot for a blog project open, as it were. I'm very much open to input on what to do, and if someone throws something intriguing out, I may well follow up on it.